The Arab world is a constellation of 22 countries with a shared language and genealogy. But in the High Museum's minifilm series Films from the Arab World, Arab identity stretches from beyond any geographical designation, from Scandinavia to inner-city Los Angeles to the vast Tunisian desert.
Film festivals like the one at the High seek to address the complexity of Arab culture. Too often, that rich history is overridden by a contemporary emphasis on political discord, a pitfall into which Films from the Arab World nearly falls. But the series manages to address Middle Eastern politics without excluding more artful, spiritual views of the region.
The Arab-Jew division defines the documentary Encounter Point (Feb. 9), about the astounding efforts being made by some Israelis and Palestinians to wage peace. Ronit Avni's and Julia Bacha's film opens with two men approaching an Israeli border check and the entirely different associations and experiences that ordinary occurrence provokes. Shlomo Zagman is a former right-wing Jewish settler. He tells the filmmakers at the border checkpoint, "Just wave hello and pass," like a VIP gliding into a nightclub, oblivious to the line snaking around the block. Zagman's worldview is defined by the relative privilege of being on the "right" side of the Israeli/Palestinian divide. But as the film progresses, Zagman begins to question his privileged position.
On the other side of that border check is Ali Awwad, a Palestinian with a long wait ahead of him and some deep scars: Years before, his 30-year-old brother was killed by an Israeli soldier. Though Awwad reasons that he has every right to be consumed by hatred for the Israelis, he has instead become a crusader for reconciliation. His ambitions are vast; he travels to a hospital for wounded Arabs and tries to convince these young, angry Palestinians to seek peace. Awwad is joined in his pro-peace mission by both Israelis and Palestinians who have lost children as well as suicide bombers and trigger-happy soldiers. Parental loss cuts deep in Encounter Point, which often focuses on the efforts of these members of the Bereaved Families Forum to look past vengeance to the healing possibility of forgiveness. Their capacity for forgiveness is extraordinary, and extraordinarily moving.
Encounter Point will screen on a double bill with another film about Israeli/Arab divides undoubtedly meant to lighten the mood. A 22-minute confection that shifts from silly to occasionally stupid, West Bank Story was an Oscar-winning short in 2006. The film opens like the famously balletic finger-snapping turf war between the Jets and the Sharks as Palestinians and Jews gear up for a tussle. Here, the two warring factions are represented by Arab and Jew falafel-stand employees. Highlighting how beneath every ethnic and regional divide there is absurdity, this singing and dancing farce has the pretty young Arab girl Fatima (played by Noureen DeWulf, who will be present to introduce the film) professing her love for a pretty-boy Israeli soldier.
The conflict between Jews and Arabs is also central to AmericanEast (Feb. 23). First-time director Hesham Issawi makes his influences apparent with nods to both Paul Haggis' racial tinderbox Crash and the sweltering, combustive atmosphere of Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. A patchwork cast of characters in post-9/11 Los Angeles circulates in and out of the combination social club/restaurant Habibi. The Egyptian owner, Moustafa (a warm, sympathetic turn by Sayed Badreya), recently has had his kindness tested by a run-in with racially profiling feds at the L.A. airport.
At Habibi, the air conditioner is on the fritz and tensions are high. A volatile Arab man picks fights with the Jewish businessman, Sam (Tony Shalhoub), who is trying to work out a deal to open a new restaurant with Moustafa. Viewers will spend the duration of this soapy but watchable film on their seat edge, wondering where the cataclysmic, inevitable match thrown on gasoline will come from. As in Do the Right Thing, it's not from the expected source.
Bab'Aziz: The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul (Feb. 16) is free of political tension, but is steeped in Islamic folklore almost as dense and difficult to comprehend. In Arabic and Farsi, this labyrinthine Tunisian-French-Iranian-German-Hungarian-British co-production unfolds like some ancient fairy tale. Magically bubbling up like oil from the sand, a blind grandfather, Bab'Aziz (Parviz Shahinkhou), and his puppy-cute granddaughter Ishtar (Maryam Hamid) begin their long journey across the desert. The pair moves toward a mysterious "gathering" of dervishes that begins to take on spiritual properties like the long, slow crawl to the afterlife.
Bab'Aziz regales his granddaughter with stories about handsome princes lost in the desert. The shards of story are often hard to keep straight, and the meandering, ethereal story line will frustrate many viewers. But Tunisian director Nacer Khemir's Old World, poetic approach combining magical realism and Sufi mysticism often cuts through the fog with lovely images and a tender challenge to the pervasively negative images of Islam.